You may learn a lot about botany when you read Mark Pawlak’s Reconnaissance, his newest volume of verse. “No way!” you say. Continue, dear reader.
You’ve seen those “10 All-in-One” series of tomes such as Windows 10 All-in-One For Dummies. Pawlak’s book is actually four books in one: “In Transit” (poems about traveling on Boston’s MBTA), “Pine Pillow Book” (poems, impressions, and found poems in and around northern Maine), “Natural Histories” (where there’s botany), and “Go to the Pine” (more poems largely about Maine, but with a slightly different slant).
Pawlak’s travels on the subway remind me of Dante’s Purgatorio. It’s not exactly hell; what he encounters there is not actually torment, but dislocation and confusion in the denizens of the underground (and barely overground). A West Indies man hunches over a bible and preaches “to all of us sinners and to no one in particular.” A “white bearded mannequin” hold up a cardboard sign that reads “H-E-L-P.” There is something notable about everyone he meets, like the Korean street musician who sings John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “her tongue wrestling to enunciate the ‘l’s, the ‘r’s.” Or his overhearing two teens talking about why they have to learn about something as small as electrons. These poems are so vivid, have so much felt life to them, that you can’t help thinking, “These people aren’t imaginary. He must have seen them.”
The poems in the “Pine Pillow Book” are no less vivid, but they examine the evidence of humanity in its signs and detritus. Some don’t even have titles. He stares at a junk car, probably from the road, “tailgate pocked with dime-sized holes,/where some sportsman took target practice.” He reproduces found poetry in the criminal mischief complaints of the police blotter in Quoddy Tides, a Maine newspaper that covers Eastport, Lubec, Perry, Pembroke, Whiting, Trescott, Campobello Island, Deer Island, and Calais. Someone is summoned for “negotiating a worthless instrument.” Four juveniles wreck a mailbox and are sent to church “for a couple of weeks” as punishment. As the saying goes, “you can’t make this stuff up.” The images are as poetic as the weathered signs that photographer William Christenberry offers in his books like Disappearing Places. “Bare concrete slab with PVC pipes sticking up” and “Rusting, corrugated-metal Quonset hut/perched on a fenced-off, badly listing pier.” I wonder if he’d let me accompany him in his next jaunt with my camera and tripod.
Keep Wikipedia open as you read “Natural Histories.” You’ll want to learn more about the flowers you encounter. In “Cupid’s Dart,” he displays an impressive knowledge of flower names, grouping them poetically. Some NYT reader wanted to present his beloved with a bouquet of flowers with love-themed names, so Pawlak gives him more than he asked for. “Lady’s Maid/Heart’s Delight/Kiss-me quick.” The rhythm alone is snappy. (All twenty have their Latin names footnoted.) Animals make appearances too: “impatient ants” “wasps burrowing” (ouch!), “cat lapping stars in backyard puddle.” These poems are so vibrant, so bursting with color and activity, they remind me of the paintings Boston impressionist John Joseph Enneking did before WWI.
The poems in the final volume “Go to the Pine” are richly imagistic (“Sun’s broken yolk/streaking the hroizon/blood-orange”) but also draw fascinating contrasts, like that between a Lay’s Potato Chip bag and a “hawkweed’s yellow petals.” A few pages before, he reproduces “The Machias District court cases from the Bangor Daily News,” which lists the penalties people had to pay for various infractions like “violation of scallop rule” and “hand fishing sea urchin without license.” How much were the perpetrators set back for these crimes?
Buy the book and find out.